STUDY: Fox News leads networks in pushing White House's false narrative that Trump tax cuts increased wages
Fox News’ right-wing propaganda dominated cable news coverage of Trump tax cuts
Blog ››› ››› ROB SAVILLO
Fox News has relentlessly repeated the false narrative that President Donald Trump’s tax plan, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, either increased wages for workers or was the direct cause of some major companies issuing one-time bonuses to employees. Since Trump signed the legislation into law on December 22, 2017, Fox News hosts, correspondents, and guests have made the claim 248 times. In reality, wages have been essentially stagnant since the tax bill was signed, companies poured the vast majority of their tax savings into stock buybacks, and U.S. dividends hit record highs in the months after the tax bill became law.
What Republicans billed as a middle-class tax cut has overwhelmingly benefited the richest Americans and wealthiest corporations. Now the GOP-controlled House just passed tax cuts 2.0, which economist Jared Bernstein described as a plan that “doubles down on everything that's wrong with the plan they passed at the end of last year."
Media Matters reviewed transcripts of the three major cable networks’ evening news shows beginning at 4 p.m. for CNN and Fox News and 5 p.m. for MSNBC (4 p.m. transcripts of Deadline: White House were unavailable) through midnight each weeknight. We looked for comments on wage increases or bonuses versus comments on corporate stock or share buybacks or dividends in discussions about the tax bill since it passed on December 22, 2017.
Fox led coverage, with comments spread over 182 segments during the nine-month study period. By contrast, CNN and MSNBC each aired only 29 segments containing comments that this study analyzed. Fox was able to set the narrative by having significantly more coverage of the topic and overwhelmingly pushing the administration’s false talking point that the tax cuts spurred wage increases or bonuses.
Prior to passage of the Trump tax cuts, the White House Council of Economic Advisers claimed that the legislation would “increase average household income in the United States by, very conservatively, $4,000 annually.” Council Chairman Kevin Hassett clarified in a Wall Street Journal op-ed that the household income increase would actually be a wage increase: “When profits go up, capital investment goes up, and wages follow. That’s the reason we estimated, based on what has happened around the world, that households will get an average $4,000 wage increase from corporate tax reform.” And the day Trump signed the tax bill, he credited it with encouraging companies to issue bonuses to their workers.
However, real hourly earnings have been stagnant since the tax bill was signed into law, even declining slightly from August 2017 to August 2018, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report issued in September. In August, Pew Research Center released a report showing that real wages haven’t moved in decades. Instead of using their tax cuts for wage or investment growth, companies chose to pour the vast majority of their tax savings into unprecedented stock buybacks, and U.S. dividends reached a record high in the wake of the tax legislation.
The bonuses were not all what they were promised to be, either -- few employees met the requirements necessary to qualify for the $1,000 maximum bonuses that several large companies announced. Many employees at Walmart, Home Depot, and Lowe’s qualified for only $200-250 bonuses. And AT&T and Comcast announced bonuses to employees in 2017, which allowed them to deduct the cost at the prior 35 percent corporate tax rate rather than the new 21 percent rate of the tax bill.
The new focus on wage increases at the likes of Walmart -- from $9 an hour to $11 an hour -- obscured the fact that the company had been raising wages for the past few years anyway: In 2015, the hourly wage rose to $9, and in 2016, it rose again to $10. At the same time as news spread of the increase to $11, the retailer announced layoffs of thousands of employees. In the past, Walmart has resisted efforts to increase its minimum wage to $15 an hour.
The facts didn’t stop Fox News from tirelessly repeating the administration line that wages were up and bonuses were issued because of the tax cuts. Fox News hosts, correspondents, and guests have claimed the tax cuts led to higher wages or company-issued bonuses 248 times since December 22, 2017. Fox’s business-focused show, Your World with Neil Cavuto, led the coverage with 78 segments total, including 133 comments made about wage hikes and bonuses.
This narrative drove the network’s coverage as evidence refuting these false claims was a much smaller fraction of the discussion. Fox commentators correctly noted that wages had remained flat over the last year or that companies had been using the vast majority of their tax savings on stock buybacks or dividends only 57 times over the same nine-month period.
On CNN and MSNBC, tax cuts, wage increases, bonuses, and stock buybacks were hardly topics of conversation. Speakers on CNN repeated the White House’s narrative almost as often as others pointed out wage stagnation or stock buybacks. The top CNN show, Erin Burnett OutFront, was emblematic of this pattern, with 14 comments about wage increases or bonuses and 12 comments about stagnant wages or stock buybacks.
On MSNBC, the administration line on wage increases and bonuses was barely mentioned; comments on wage stagnation or stock buybacks were made three times as often. MSNBC’s top show, All In with Chris Hayes, demonstrated this trend with zero comments about wage increases or bonuses and 12 comments about stagnant wages or stock buybacks.
Overall, discussions of the tax law on Fox vastly outnumbered discussions on CNN and MSNBC.
More than three-quarters of Fox’s dishonest coverage occurred during the two months after Trump signed the tax bill. Between December 22, 2017, and January 22, 2018, speakers on Fox made claims that the tax legislation increased wages or caused companies to issue bonuses 99 times. In the following 30 days, the claims were repeated another 92 times.
This persistence on Fox drowned out comments on all three networks that correctly identified the country’s consistently flat wages or corporate stock buyback initiatives since the tax bill went into law -- these claims were made less than 20 times in any single 30-day period on any of the three networks.
Throughout the course of the study, Fox News completely dominated coverage on wage increases, bonuses, and the tax cuts, misleadingly connecting them over and over while failing to mention that the vast majority of corporate tax savings went into stock buybacks.
Media Matters searched the Nexis transcript database for weekday evening news shows on the three major cable news networks: CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC. Evening news includes all programs beginning at 4 p.m. and ending at midnight with the exception of MSNBC’s Deadline: White House, which airs for one hour at 4 p.m., because its transcripts are unavailable in Nexis.
We counted comments that fell into one of three categories:
- Comments that claimed that the tax bill had or would increase wages or cause companies to issue bonuses to employees.
- Comments that were critical of claims that the tax bill had or would increase wages or cause companies to issue bonuses, including comments that identified anecdotal wage increases or issued bonuses but said those increases or bonuses were a small portion of the tax savings spent by companies; or comments that identified that wages had been flat or stagnant over the last year since the signing of the tax bill.
- Comments that identified that stock or share buybacks or dividends were a larger portion of the tax savings spent by companies than any benefits given to workers.
We defined a “comment” as a single block of uninterrupted speech from a single speaker in the transcript. In the case of crosstalk as identified by the transcript, we coded each speaker engaged in the crosstalk as making a single comment rather than several back-and-forth comments. We excluded comments made in video clips unless a speaker on the program used language that clearly endorsed the comment either directly before or after the clip aired. More than one category may occur in a single comment.
We excluded comments that merely stated “paychecks would increase” or workers would have “more money in their pockets” and the like since these comments may only suggest that withholding would be less, and therefore, workers would have a higher paycheck; however, these comments do not necessarily suggest that workers’ base wages would increase.
We designed our searches to look specifically for comments about the tax legislation that fit the above categories. For categories (1) and (2), we looked for the terms “wages,” “earnings,” “money,” or variations of “pay” within 10 words of variations of “increase,” “high,” “grow,” or “decrease” or the terms “up,” “hike,” “more,” “raise,” “rise,” “stagnant,” “flat,” or “lower” or the term “bonus” all within 50 words of the terms “tax” within 10 words of “plan,” “bill,” “reform,” “cut,” or “law” or the term “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”
For category (3), we looked for the terms “stock” or “share” within 10 words of “buyback” or the terms “dividend,” “shareholder,” “merger,” or “acquisition” all within 50 words of “tax” within 10 words of “plan,” “bill,” “reform,” “cut,” or “law” or the term “Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.”